Making Sounds on the Big Screen

Category: music 271

Award winning New Brunswick composer Zachary Greer talks about composition, inspiration and how he got started writing music for film and theatre. 

Matt Carter 

If you’re a musician interested in exploring the fascinating world of film scoring, Zachary Greer has some advice for you.

“The industry moves very slow and patience really is a virtue.”

Greer is a Fredericton-based musician who, for the past few years now, has been concentrating a lot of time and effort towards building a career as a composer for film, television and theatre. He has studied composition at Memorial University and has attended the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in New York City led by American composer Mark Snow (who penned the iconic theme for X-Files) and four-time Emmy winner Sean Callery (Jessica Jones, Designated Survivor). 

He has contributed music to a number of independent film projects over the past few years including The Nashwaak (which won him an Excellence in Film Composition award at the 2018 Silver Wave Film Festival) and credits much of his career motivation and interest in composition to the instruction and encouragement he received from St. Thomas University professor Martin Kutnowski. 

“My time at St. Thomas University would not have been anywhere near what it was without Martin Kutnowski,” said Greer. “I went on a field trip with my high school music class to St. Thomas because our jazz combo was playing in a STU Jazz concert. Earlier in the day we attended a theory class that Martin put on, basically giving us a preview of what the university level would be like. I had just started playing guitar that year and had very little knowledge of theory, so I was incredibly intimidated by his lecture.”

Greer admits he was so intimidated by the experience that he questioned whether or not music would be something worth dedicating his time to once he finished high school. As a grade 12 student sitting in on a university level lecture on music theory, Kutnowski’s words flew far over his head. But after taking a one year break from education between high school and university, Greer ended up enrolling at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. And despite being overwhelmed by what he faced in Kutnowski’s lecture, he enrolled in a few of his classes. 

“One of the main things I’ve always appreciated about film music, or instrumental music, is that it’s unbiased and can connect to anyone’s story.”

“I struggled for a while with theory, but Martin is so good with providing constructive feedback, and giving you the opportunity to demonstrate that you’re learning,” said Greer. “His evaluations were never as simple as, ‘here’s your grade and that’s final.’ He would always point out areas where you improved and what you need to do to keep improving, and he’d allow you a couple times to go back and redo things, which is how true learning happens. His pedagogy, for me, is above any professor I’ve ever had. He would always push his students to go the extra mile too.”

It was Kutnowski who first suggested Greer attend the NYC workshop, an experience that would prove to be a major catalyst in his development as an emerging film composer. 

The ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop at NYU is a two week program where the accepted participants compose, orchestrate and record a cue for symphonic orchestra,” said Greer. “It was very much an individual based workshop as far as the writing goes, but all the participants would share their works in progress and discuss them.

“On top of all the time spent working on the cues, we had various presentations from people in the industry, including Nancy Allen who has worked as a music editor on some of the biggest films ever, like the Lord of the Rings. I definitely felt a bit overwhelmed at times during the workshop and it was very humbling too, because I was surrounded by such amazing talent. We got to record our cue with part of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, and I opted to conduct them for the session, which was probably the deal sealer for me. Being in front of musicians at that level and feeling their energy coming back at me was one of the most amazing experiences. It was like a milestone reward for all the work I had done and money I spent to get there,” he said.

To date, Greer has composed music for a pair of stage productions by Theatre St. Thomas and several independent film and television productions including the documentary Yukon Harvest which is set to air on APTN sometime in 2020.

“One of the main things I’ve always appreciated about film music, or instrumental music, is that it’s unbiased and can connect to anyone’s story,” said Greer.

While working for theatre and film both present very different challenges, Greer has found that to date, his experience in both creative worlds carry with them a number of parallels. 

“In my experience, the process of film composing usually begins with the composer talking with the director about the story and how they envision the tone of the project,” he said. “Based on that, I like to dive right in and start writing sketches, or record rough mock-ups that I think evoke the director’s vision. However, once you see the picture a lot of things could change and you may have to alter your original ideas, or scrap them and start over. Sometimes it really is just watching and playing, until something you do clicks with the picture.”

Although his two experiences working with Theatre St. Thomas where very different in nature – he wrote and performed the music for The Trickster of Seville and His Stone Guest live on stage but was able to write and record his work for No White Picket Fence – the process still focused closely on having a solid working relationship with the director. 

“For theatre I found the process to be very similar. I’ve only worked on two productions, so I can’t say it’s always like this, but the communication with the director happens continuously. When I worked on The Trickster of Seville and His Stone Guest I would discuss music with the director (Robin Whittaker) after almost every rehearsal, and specifically with that show since all the music was performed live on stage, we’d discuss slight changes after each performance. That show was fun. My only regret is that I played in it as well as wrote the music, which I say only because I would have liked to see how the music paired from the audience’s perspective, so I could critique my compositions and not focus on my playing. 

“The second theatre production I worked on was No White Picket Fence which was directed by Robin Whittaker and Sue McKenzie-Mohr. That was a less taxing production for me, because the music was not performed. I remember when I played one of the first cues I’d recorded, which was the main theme for the show, and I looked over at Sue and she was wiping away tears. That was a nice bit of reassurance for me. It’s moments like that that are my favourite part of composing. Seeing the music and performance come together and create a wave of emotion.”

Greer has made some his composition work available through Bandcamp. Last month he released the album The Way Home and the EP Beneath Black Glass, both complex collections of mood and atmosphere. 

“My passion lies in scoring for film and television, but I’ve also always believed that scores can stand on their own as pieces of music, which is why I decided to release instrumental albums,” he said.

The Way Home is a collection of new and old tracks. Some of them contain material as old as four years. I recorded new parts and remixed and mastered the old stuff. When I had initially recorded them I didn’t have the engineering chops to bring them to an acceptable form. The narrative of the album unfolds like a series of memories or reflections of period in someone’s life. There’s definitely hints to specific events that have occurred in my past, but the music can translate differently to whoever. 

“Beneath Black Glass contains tracks that I had originally written and recorded for a short film, but scheduling conflicts led the project to be postponed indefinitely,” he said. “Thematically the music is a commentary on the current social climate in regards to technology and social media. I also just wanted to release music that showcased my abilities in a more experimental way with regards to harmonies and timbre. There’s some play with atonality in there and electroacoustic elements that I got from recording random sounds in my house.”

Greer’s latest collection of compositions entitled, Bloodletting, was released last week. 

To stay current with Greer’s music and to learn more about his work, visit www.zacharygreer.com

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